Virus concerns close churches, other voting sites for Georgia primary

Voters cast ballots for an earlier election at Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek. Many churches that previously served as polling places have said they will not open their doors to voters for Georgia’s primary on June 9 out of concern that they could help spread the coronavirus. (Calvin Cruce/AJC staff)
Voters cast ballots for an earlier election at Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek. Many churches that previously served as polling places have said they will not open their doors to voters for Georgia’s primary on June 9 out of concern that they could help spread the coronavirus. (Calvin Cruce/AJC staff)

Some churches, senior centers and fire stations are shutting their doors because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving Georgia voters with fewer places to cast their ballots in the June 9 primary.

Polling places have closed across Georgia, but especially in Fulton County, where more than 30 locations told election officials they're unwilling to host voters on election day.

The loss of precincts leaves fewer options for voters, increasing the danger of groups gathering to vote in fewer places.

While nearly 1.3 million people have requested absentee ballots, in-person voting must remain available during three weeks of early voting starting May 18 and on election day June 9, according to state law.

Voting locations in churches are the most vulnerable.

Churches normally serve as 35% of the state’s precincts, but many of them have closed to both parishioners and the public to help prevent the spread of the coroanvirus, according to a statewide analysis of polling places by the Georgia News Lab, an investigative reporting partnership among Georgia universities and GPB News. An additional 27% of precincts are located in schools or municipal buildings, which are more likely to remain open for voting.

“It is a risk to vote in person,” said Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron, who is recommending that everyone vote by mail. “I encourage people to vote early if they want to vote in person, and also to expect to wait in line.”

He expects to operate about 165 precincts in Fulton, compared with 198 normally.

The number of voting locations could continue to shrink as election day grows closer.

Counties across metro Atlanta also reported losing voting locations because of the coronavirus, including Cherokee, Cobb, Gwinnett and Rockdale. Officials in DeKalb County said they’re still checking with locations on their availability for the primary.

A substantial number of precinct closures could reduce turnout, increase lines and potentially spread the coronavirus.

In Wisconsin's primary last month, five voting centers were open in Milwaukee, compared with 180 locations normally, resulting in hours-long waits. At least 67 people tested positive for COVID-19 after voting in person or working the polls in Milwaukee, but it's unclear how many of those cases were spread by the election or other exposure.

Along with the reduction in precincts in Georgia, poll workers are quitting so they can avoid the possibility of illness. Though losses are increasing, counties contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they will have at least three poll workers per precinct as required by law.

Some voting locations say they had no choice but to pull out of participating in the June 9 primary, no matter how much they support voting rights.

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights will not serve as a polling site for Georgia’s June 9 primary. “We were just not able to contemplate being a precinct because of our own situation,” said Jill Savitt, the president and CEO of the center. “We are unbelievably proud to be a polling station. It’s imperative to our mission that people can exercise that basic human right and participate in their government. But we don’t want to put anyone’s health at risk.”
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights will not serve as a polling site for Georgia’s June 9 primary. “We were just not able to contemplate being a precinct because of our own situation,” said Jill Savitt, the president and CEO of the center. “We are unbelievably proud to be a polling station. It’s imperative to our mission that people can exercise that basic human right and participate in their government. But we don’t want to put anyone’s health at risk.”

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, for example, has furloughed staff, closed its parking deck and reduced building security.

“We were just not able to contemplate being a precinct because of our own situation,” said Jill Savitt, the president and CEO of the center, located near Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta. “We are unbelievably proud to be a polling station. It’s imperative to our mission that people can exercise that basic human right and participate in their government. But we don’t want to put anyone’s health at risk.”

Many churches will remain closed for both services and voting to protect public health.

“The reason we’re not being a voting poll is because the bishop for the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church is asking us not to have anything on campus until July,” said Linda Andrews, the office manager for St. James United Methodist Church in Alpharetta.

County election officials said they’re making safety accommodations for voters at precincts that remain open.

In Rockale County, where at least two churches have withdrawn from the primary election, poll workers will be equipped with facial shields, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray for voting computers, Elections Supervisor Cynthia Willingham said. Voters will use styluses instead of their fingers to make their choices on touchscreens.

“We’re going to push through it and take every safety precaution available,” Willingham said. “The most important thing is to get voters to vote by mail. In any event, the election must go on and we have some dedicated poll workers who have said they’re on board.”

During early voting, voters will check in at a tent and then wait in their cars rather than stand in line near other people, she said. Election workers will send them a text message when it’s their turn to vote.

Gwinnett County hasn't lost any of its 156 election day precincts so far, but it is down three early-voting locations where social distancing would be difficult to enforce, said Kristi Royston, the county's elections supervisor.

She said she’s hoping voting locations don’t back out.

“Just like everyone, we do have an aspect of wait-and-see that’s out there with our poll officials and facility contacts,” Royston said.

In Cobb County, a Methodist church notified election officials it wouldn’t open the building for any purpose, and there will be four fewer early-voting locations, Elections Director Janine Eveler said.

About 400 poll workers have said they’re unwilling to staff the primary, leaving Cobb with about 1,000 poll workers for 144 precincts.

“Many of them are already telling us they don’t feel comfortable, so our numbers will be reduced,” Eveler said. “We are getting new people to some extent, but not enough to backfill everybody who has already quit.”

Senior centers in Cobb are able to remain open for voting because they’re government buildings that aren’t allowing older people to gather there, she said.

In some of the hardest-hit areas in southwest Georgia, no precincts have closed, in large part because they're mostly in government buildings, said election officials in Dougherty, Early, Randolph and Terrell counties.

Georgia law allows polling places to be changed at any time during an emergency. Notices must be posted at the closed polling places, and some counties contact affected voters directly to let them know their new voting locations.

Metro Atlanta voting closures

Fulton: At least 30 fewer on election day, 16 fewer during early voting

Cobb: 1 election day, 4 early voting

Gwinnett: 3 early voting

DeKalb: 1 early voting

Source: County election offices

Voting locations in Georgia

Churches: 35%

Schools: 17%

Municipal buildings: 10%

Fire departments: 9%

County buildings: 7%

Parks/recreation centers: 8%

Unknown: 4%

Senior centers: 3%

Private property: 3%

Libraries: 2%

Source: Georgia News Lab / GPB News

How to vote in Georgia’s June 9 primary

All registered voters are eligible to participate in Georgia’s June 9 primary, either by casting ballots by mail or in person.

Voters can request an absentee ballot through the My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov, or they can return absentee ballot application forms mailed statewide in April.

In-person early person begins May 18. Election day voting locations will be open as well, though some precinct locations will be unavailable because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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